Approximately 400 million people worldwide suffer from some form of mental illness, but few South Africans actively seek treatment because of the stigma still attached to mental illnesses.
This is according to Dr Hayley Walker-Williams, a clinical psychologis at Netcare Vaalpark Hospital and head of the psychology department at North-West University (Vanderbijlpark campus).
With October being Mental Health Awareness Month, Walker-Williams noted the unfortunate reality was that many people do not take mental health issues seriously enough.
She said that people often regarded those who suffer from a mental health disorder as having a character flaw or simply looking for attention, or making it simply a matter of having to pull themselves together.
“However, like physical illnesses, mental health illnesses are real, can vary in severity and can cause significant impairment in the overall functioning of those impacted.
“This is as a result of a complex interplay between biological factors such as genes or brain chemistry, psychological factors including life experiences such as trauma or abuse, or because of social and environmental factors such as a family history of mental health problems,” Walker-Williams said.
She said mental health conditions involved changes in thinking, emotion or behaviour and were associated with distress and problems functioning in social, work or family activities.
“Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, obsessive compulsive disorder and substance abuse are all common disorders impacting individuals regardless of culture, gender, age or their socio-economic group,” she said.
In terms of promoting mental health awareness, Walker-Williams says that recognising that mental illness is as real as any physical illness is the first vital step in the process.
“Creating awareness requires actively educating people on what mental illness is and how to prevent it where possible in an effort to reduce the stigma that surrounds it.
“It is furthermore important to remember that mental illness is treatable and that with treatment, the majority of individuals with mental illness continue to function well in their daily lives.
“Seeking professional help from a healthcare practitioner or clinic should therefore be encouraged if a mental health condition is suspected,” she said.